COSMIC REALITY (continued)

Of course the current scientific picture is not final, and a definitive picture may never be possible. Nonetheless the elegance of mathematics, the power of universal constants such as the speed of light and equations such as E=mc2, the splendor of the atomic model and of subatomic physics, the awesome beauty of the DNA double helix, the revelation of the fossil evidence of past geologic ages, the unfathomable energy of the sun, the magnificence of the Hubble deep field photographs, and much more  defy reasonable challenge. This cosmic reality, understood only because of thousands of years of human seeking is worthy of our acceptance, wonder, and reverence.

However the scientific portrait leaves unanswered problems such as whether there is a multiverse, a creator, strict determination, or any immaterial facet to the universe. Consciousness remains inadequately explained and mysterious. There is still the question of the validity of advanced theoretical mathematics that lies beyond empirical confirmation, or even why there is anything at all. So some gaps in our understanding of cosmic reality remain. Philosophers known as positivists and some scientists assert that in the absence of material evidence or clear proof of a hypothesis (e.g. a creator of the universe), we should reject non-scientific theories, often citing some variation of Ockham’s razor. However there is room here for debate by reasonable persons, including many without strong religious beliefs. While science is likely to be the best tool to resolve these unknowns, there is no way for us to be sure for now.

In addition, even today, people of faith challenge science on the basis of revelation and spiritual experiences. Science by its nature is not a tool appropriate to study that model of cosmic reality, but the issue of faith and the reality of religious texts will be the subject of future blogs. And finally skeptics still find room to challenge science as statistical or probabilistic, even occasionally contradictory, rather than absolute.

 

1 Bacon, Francis, Novum Organon, The Great Books, 1952. Especially pages 127-136.

2Hume, David, Concerning Human Understanding. The Great Books, 1952. Pages 476-478.

3Haick, Ernst, The Riddle of the Universe. The Thinker’s Library. 1931. Especially chapter XX, pages 298-312.

4 For an excellent review of the current scientific understanding of the universe and the limitations of science and mathematics, see Professor Steve Gimbel’s Redefining Reality: The intellectual Implications of Modern Science. The Great Courses, especially lectures 1-13.

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COSMIC REALITY

“Cosmology leads logically to the idea of a transcendence beyond space and time.” –                    Milton Munitz, The Great Ideas Today, 1992.

 

Beyond internal, proximate, and cultural reality is the level of cosmic reality. By this term, I mean reality not directly observed by the mind or the senses and outside the realm of human relations. Cosmic reality depends on scientific tools, experiment, and advanced mathematics and is circumscribed by laws that govern the universe and the constituents of matter (especially as conveyed by cosmology and physics).

First I should mention that natural science is the greatest of the offspring of philosophy though most scientists feel the child long ago surpassed the parent. But speculation on the nature of reality by the ancients was in fact the means by which science developed. For instance, the atom was first postulated by Democritus in the 5th century B.C.E. Moreover the scientific method was developed through philosophy (induction is a form of logic) especially in the writings of Francis Bacon1, and also challenged by eminent philosophers such as David Hume2.

Ernst Haick in his 1899 book The Riddle of the Universe3 argues that the scientific advances of the 19th century lead thoughtful men to monism, or strict materialism as the explanation of the universe as opposed to dualism which accepts non-material reality, for example God. Most scientists seem to grant Haick’s conclusion. Given the subsequent developments in science and the amazing success of technology, most of us accept that science gives us the best and most complete description of cosmic reality. That includes the origin of the universe in the ‘Big Bang,’ the development of galaxies and our solar system, the spontaneous appearance of life on Earth and evolution by natural selection, the space-time fabric, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and the laws of thermodynamics particularly as they apply to the indestructibility of matter and energy and the arrow of time. This site cannot serve in the role of a detailed proof or explanation of these complex scientific theories, but all of the following posts will assume some level of acceptance of this developing picture of cosmic reality.4

(continued next post)

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PROXIMATE REALITY (continued)

Edmund Husserl concerned about the uncertainty of assumptions of the natural sciences – such as the existence of the external world or the constancy of nature – develops a philosophical system which he calls phenomenology: the philosophy of experience. In this method, one studies experience while suspending any pre-existing beliefs by a process he calls ‘bracketing.’ Given subject matter is converted from external object to lived experience leading to his slogan, “Back to the things themselves.” For instance a tree is not seen as an object separate from experience but as the perception we experience. Proximate reality then is the experience of an object rather than the object itself.2

Phenomenology is picked up by many philosophers and some psychologists in the 20th century. We already alluded to Martin Heidegger who uses phenomenology to investigate internal and external reality in his challenging book, Being and Time. While his initial intention is to understand the concept of ‘being’ in general, he decides the most effective way to investigate it is to use phenomenology to understand his individual being, in German, dasein. Early in his investigation, he notes that dasein perceives at once ‘being-in-the-world.’ From this starting point he determines that the world is a region of human concern, shared with others, and man’s involvement in the world is constitutive of man’s being.3

From these sources, we learn that proximate reality is assembled from sensory perceptions by the organizing process of the mind, and while not absolutely reliable, can be trusted when based on sufficient evidence and confirmatory experience. By suspending judgment on the context of things, we can live the experience of things at hand, and the world we experience becomes integral to our own being.

As always, many philosophers do not agree with all or even any of these assessments of proximate reality, but each of these concepts was derived from deep thinking about the problem. Fidelity to philosophy means giving them substantial thought before discarding them.

 

1 Santayana, George, The Life of Reason. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1953. Pages 17-25.

2 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publsihers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 502-509.

3Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Harper Perennial Modern Thought. 2008.ISBN 978-0-06-157599-4. Part 1.

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PROXIMATE REALITY

“ … reality is a term of discourse based on a psychic complex of memories, associations, and expectations, but considered in its ideal independence by the assertive energy of thought.” – George Santayana

 

Of course an individual’s concept of internal reality will color the interpretation of the other tiers of reality.  Internal reality is by definition accessible without the use of the senses; proximate reality is my term for the composite of things as they present to us directly through the senses.  Now on the face of it, we should have no doubt about the reality within the reach of sensation, especially vision, but philosophically we want to confirm that assumption and investigate the consequences.

For example, in the last blog, I alluded to Immanuel Kant who in his Critique of Pure Reason notes that real things can only be experienced by us as perceptions – in fact we can never know the ‘thing-in-itself.’ For example, a red apple is only red because of the way its surface reflects light to an eye with a certain physiology; it is not red in-itself.  However Kant believes the mind naturally takes perceptions and places them into categories such as cause and effect or possibility and impossibility. From this Kant creates his “Copernican revolution”; reality in not mainly a function of external things but is generated by the mind’s organizing of external perceptions, that is the center moves from the things themselves to man’s mind. His model did in fact start a revolution, that is, a new field of philosophy known as German idealism which dovetailed nicely with 19th century romanticism.

George Santayana provides a critical analysis of the reality of perceptions in The Life of Reason. He agrees with Kant that the perceived world is universally experienced by man as occurring in space and time.  He observes that perception does not define a reality, rather reveals a ‘chaos of multitudinous impressions’ mixed with internal feelings and emotions.  Using the faculty of memory, vestiges of prior perceptions are correlated to current perceptions to give form to reality, a process he identifies as intelligence.  Knowledge is a recognition of something absent in direct perception – representation. In response to the skeptic, he says we cannot expect certainty in our knowledge of external reality, but belief is warranted by evidence (of the senses) as revealed through understanding. That is, pragmatically, reality is the mind’s impression of the immediate world that assures consistency in future perceptions and sensations.1

(to be continued next post)

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